Russia’s ideological puzzle
March 30, 2023
  • Ilya Venyavkin
    Historian, journalist, researcher at Russian Independent Media Archive
Ilya Venyavkin outlines the questions that structure the debates about the ideology of today’s Russia and also discusses the phenomenon of bottom-up 'ideological production' – how the people doing the fighting or actively supporting the war effort on the Russian side are incorporating the war into their picture of reality.
As the aggression against Ukraine goes on, Russian soldiers have incorporated the war into their personal experience and have given it meaning whatever they believe they're fighting for.
Source: Wiki Commons
Since the war began a year ago, nearly every mainstream English-language and remaining independent Russian-language media, as well as many think-tanks focused on Russia, have tried to answer the question of whether modern Russia has an ideology and, if so, how best to describe it.

Attempts to coherently describe Putin’s ideology have been made over the past 20 years, but the increased interest toward the topic seems attributable to a spontaneous consensus: the current political regime in Russia can no longer be described simply as kleptocratic or authoritarian (it is commonly described as “a mafia-like group of unworthy rulers clinging to power at any cost and seeking to improve their well-being”). This approach was mostly famously formulated by Alexei Navalny – “the party of crooks and thieves.” After the full-fledged invasion of Ukraine, the label finally wore off.

The start of the “special military operation,” supposedly aimed at “denazifying” Ukraine, was so contrary to common sense and the accepted logic of realpolitik that journalists and experts began to look for other explanations for the actions of the Russian state. That search led them into the realm of ideas and ideologies. An additional, if not central, reason to widen the search was the obsession of the Russian authorities with ideological control, which only deepened with the launch of the criminal war. The Russian parliament is constantly passing laws prohibiting calling the war a war, the Presidential Administration is developing an ideology for domestic and foreign consumption, public speakers talk about a “war of the spirit“ and a “struggle for morals.”

Question #1: What’s on Putin’s mind?

This seems to be the first question that comes to mind, especially given that the decision to start the war was made by Putin basically by himself. Among the few others who influenced the decision, the media has named the siloviki Nikolai Patrushev and Alexander Bortnikov, as well as the banker, media mogul and Putin’s close friend Yuri Kovalchuk. These reports highlighted that Putin was not discussing economic or political considerations with his inner circle, but rather “patriotism” and Russian history. Given this, it is important to reconstruct the intellectual horizons of Putin and his silovik circle based on Putin’s public speeches and insider reports.

Some Western authors claim that they have completed this task, but it is unclear what basis they have for their reconstructions beyond quotes from philosophers (picked for Putin by his aides) the Russian president has used in his speeches. A few years ago, the historian Timothy Snyder wrote about the influence of the ideas of the near-fascist Russian philosopher Ivan Ilyin on Putin, while the journalist Charles Clover claimed that Putin was motivated by the Eurasianist ideas of Lev Gumilyov. The philosopher Alexander Dugin has gotten the most attention, in some publications even being called Putin’s Rasputin. Interest in Dugin is most obviously explained by his intellectual fluidness and productivity: there seems to be no conservative, anti-liberal theory that he will not try to add to his repertoire. In Dugin’s books, you can find Eurasianism, National Bolshevism, radical conservatism, militaristic Orthodoxy and Russian messianism. Recently, the list of philosophers quoted by Putin got a new addition with Alexander Zinoviev – in the case, it was his “anti-Westernism” ideas that were grafted. Given the worldview of the silovik hawks, which is fused with xenophobia, paranoia and conspiracy theories, everything makes sense.

Question #2: Which ideological entrepreneur has the best chance of rising to the top?

This question is no longer about the ideas themselves, but about their configuration and institutionalization. All commentators acknowledge that the ideas described above do not form a whole and consistent ideological system, which leads to the conclusion that the views of the Russian elite are better described as a pseudo-ideology (scattered ideas only covering up the actions of an inherently non-ideological regime) or proto-ideology (the regime still needs time to grow a coherent ideology). Thus, the task facing analysts is to describe what the ideology will be like when it becomes whole and coherent, and who exactly will be its guiding spirit.

Marlene Laruelle provides the best answers in her article, What is the ideology of a mobilized Russia?.She groups the current Russian ideologists into the Zinoviev and Izborsky clubs and describes their competition in the ideological marketplace. Similarly, Andrei Kolesnikov has outlined the ideological base of the “Fundamentals of Russian Statehood” course that, under the direction of Sergei Kiriyenko, is to be introduced at Russian universities. Meanwhile, details of Russia’s “pentabasis” (person, family, society, state, country), thought up in the Presidential Administration, have been emerging in the media since the end of 2022.

The struggle to be the main “court ideologists” is hardly likely to end there.
"Still, given that the various groups of ideologists are in agreement about the main thing – support for Putin and the war in Ukraine – they may well continue to coexist peacefully."
Question #3: Is it fascism?

There is another question that emerges through the discussion about what Putin and the silovik elites have in mind and through the outlook of who will develop a coherent state ideology in Russia. It is: is modern Russia a fascist state? It has been most fully examined by Marlene Laruelle who criticized Timothy Snyder’s theories.

To paraphrase their positions, Snyder argues that in Russia, will has triumphed over reason and a fascist political regime has emerged, characterized by a cult of the leader, a cult of fallen ancestors and the myth of a lost golden age of imperial greatness. The upshot is that the coalition of Western democracies has no choice but to defeat fascism – a peace treaty is impossible. Laruelle objects that technically speaking, only the “party for war” in Russia adheres to fascist views, while otherwise the regime remains a conservative, right-wing, neo-traditionalist dictatorship that does not have an interest in mobilizing the population. This means that labeling the regime “fascist” is analytically incorrect; moreover, it is harmful in terms of finding a potential political solution to the war. There is no scenario in which Russia would suffer a military defeat similar to the capitulation of Nazi Germany.

Regardless of whose arguments seem more reasonable to you, the polemic itself seems productive, as it shows that the theoretical debate about modern Russia’s ideology has important, real-world consequences. Without understanding the current and future ideological character of the Russian state, it is impossible to construct any scenarios for the end of the war.

It seems that there is also a fourth question that has thus far been raised much less frequently, without an answer to which a conversation about the future is impossible.

Question #4: What is the ideology of Russian combatants?

In the debates about Putin’s ideology, we can get carried away discussing its constituent parts and fail to notice that “ideology” itself as a concept is methodologically problematic. The first three questions that we discussed above relied heavily on political science tools and ideas about ideology as a clearly defined set of ideas with the following characteristics: 1) it is imposed from above and used by the political elite to legitimize its policies; 2) it is intellectually consistent and coherent and has clear boundaries that cannot be crossed; 3) it helps people interpret social reality and gives them a historical purpose; 4) it mobilizes the population. This understanding of ideology is most clearly formulated in the classic work of the sociologist and political scientist Juan Linz, Totalitarian and Authoritarian Regimes.

Importantly, for Linz, only totalitarian states have state ideologies, which means that the vast majority of existing states do not have them (Linz calls “mentalities” the sets of ideas that circulate in authoritarian societies). Accordingly, it can be argued that modern Russia does not have an ideology. “In Russia, there is no clearly developed and pervasive state ideology. It is possible that if one were to appear – which had taken shape and was clear – the state would even lose some of its support,” write the political scientists Margarita Zavadskaya and Alexei Gilev.

However, in the humanities and social sciences there is another set of ideas about ideology. They were formulated by the anthropologist Clifford Geertz, who saw ideologies as symbolic systems that serve as a road map for a person in a complex social reality. In this approach, ideology is an inevitable reality. Every society has one, and it cannot be imposed exclusively from above. Ideology is always the result of creative adaptation on the part of each individual, who, out of the narratives available to him, puts together a picture of reality that gives meaning to his personal experience. This approach is important in that it expands our understanding of the producers of ideology and shifts attention away from its top-down production (through the speeches of politicians, initiatives of officials, works of intellectuals) and onto its everyday, bottom-up production.

The grassroots production of ideology is difficult to pin down through opinion polls, but we can access it through the writings, words and actions of people. Thus, we can see that in Russian society, not only the siloviki, Kadyrov, Prigozhin and their associates share the values of the “party for war.” Right now, tens of thousands of Russians in various capacities are fighting or helping their country to fight against Ukraine and are incorporating the war into their picture of reality.

Most Russian soldiers do not seem to know Dugin or Prokhanov, do not read Ilyin and have not heard anything about Gumilyov. They do not need them to independently give meaning to the war: “Over there are my comrades, over there is another world where it’s even more exciting than everyday life. It’s both dangerous and very exciting over there… It doesn’t matter how you look, how much money you have, a bullet won’t spare anyone over there, you can’t buy your way out with money,” says Alexander, a soldier who got shell shock in the Luhansk region. “I would not be mistaken if I said that yesterday, through the combined efforts of your humble servant and assistants, 12 people were interrogated, all of them Nazis. They were a sorry excuse for warriors, their eyes were running, their whole appearance was crying out for mercy, but, as it must be, I was ruthless, scolding them with cross, individual and night interrogations,“ wrote an unidentified Russian officer in his diary at the very beginning of the war.

Now, it is difficult to estimate what percentage of soldiers fighting on the Russian side share such views, though on the other hand, these statements show how ideological constructions are connected with the most important questions of identity and help answer questions like: Who am I? What am I doing here? What is the right thing to do in this or that situation?
"Besides ideologues and propagandists, the war has brought agency back to many people in Russia, allowing them to find their own heroes and military fraternities and join in the myth of fighting for a just cause."
Now, these people follow the Telegram channels of “voenkory" (“war correspondents”), which together have several million subscribers. Unlike state TV, the agenda of which can be turned around 180 degrees on orders from above at a moment’s notice and which are absolutely forbidden from criticizing Putin, these Telegram consumers freely criticize Putin and Defense Minister Shoigu. Meanwhile, they do not have any doubt about the need to fight. To work at this level, an ideology does not have to be coherent or consistent, formalized by some group of ideologists, or much less correspond to some external objective truth. None of that is needed after the ideological construction has become part of someone’s personal experience.

With each day that the aggression against Ukraine goes on, there will be more and more people in Russia who have incorporated the war into their personal experience and have given it meaning – and it doesn’t matter what exactly they fought for – for Putin, for victory over “Ukrainian fascism” or the “collective West,” or for the Motherland and their brothers in arms. What matters is that right now thousands of Russians are killing thousands of Ukrainians and they are armed not only with weapons, but also with ideas. And those ideas will stay with us for a long time.
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